It’s hard to believe, but 50 years have passed since the Minnesota Orchestra last appeared in Orchestra Hall. The highly respected ensemble will make its long-anticipated return Jan. 28 as part of the Symphony Center Presents Orchestra Series with a program of Sibelius’ En Saga, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Inon Barnatan. “It has been a very long time,” said Osmo Vänskä, the orchestra’s music director since 2003. “The hall has a great history. It is great for us to come and play there and show that we have a great orchestra in Minneapolis, too.”

The Minnesota Orchestra is more vibrant than ever after weathering a 16-month lockout that caused the cancellation of its 2012-13 season and much of the subsequent one. A large share of the credit belongs to Vänskä, one of Finland’s most renowned conductors. Though the maestro resigned during the labor dispute, he returned once it was resolved. His contract has since been extended through 2021-22.

“The orchestra is extremely strong right now,” he said. “One part of the story is that the lockout brought the players and me very much together. And the whole organization, we learned many lessons from the lockout. Everybody is trying to work very hard to take care that the orchestra is doing better at every level — playing better but also as an organization. We learned things about how much the audience loves us. It goes to the fund-raising and every corner of the organization. What I want to build up here is a team working, doing things together.”

As a mark of this renewed artistic vigor, a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 by Vänskä and orchestra was just nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best orchestral performance. This latest honor follows the orchestra’s Grammy win three years ago in the same category for its album of Sibelius’ First and Fourth Symphonies.

The orchestra’s performance of Sibelius’ Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 2016 drew rapturous praise from New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe: “The final movement of the Third Symphony charts the journey of a C-major chord as it builds, swirling, in intensity and grandeur. But the Minnesotans didn’t just get bigger and bigger. With them, the music ebbed and flowed, coming on disconcertingly strong at the start, then receding; increasing, then dissolving, as momentum grew. The coppery burr of muted brasses emerged from the back of the orchestra, as if from a great distance, before a frightening descent into Expressionist madness.”

The Minnesota Orchestra’s Chicago visit is part of a one-week Midwestern tour that also features concerts and residency activities at Indiana University-Bloomington and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Vänskä has previously led the ensemble on five major European tours; in 2015, it became the first American orchestra to perform in Cuba since the recent thaw in Cuban-American relations.

“Touring is a very important part of the lives of every orchestra [that] would like to be a good one,” Vänskä said. “It’s good to do home concerts. That’s the most important thing. But it’s also good to go outside and meet new audiences and new halls, and it’s always something different. That’s why sports teams also play not just the home games.”

TOP: Osmo  Vänskä has been music director of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003. | Photo: Greg Helgeson/Minnesota Orchestra